In a Time of Confusion

Words from the work usually known as “Stainer’s Crucifixion”, by W. Sparrow Simpson.

Gerokreuz_full_20050903 copyright to attribution
Gerokreuz, late 10th century, Cologne Cathedral. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Glory and honour,

Let the world divide and take them,

Crown its monarchs and unmake them.

Thou – Thou shalt reign.

 

W. Sparrow Simpson

In that hour

For our Lady of Sorrows

The Father for their joint purpose here the Son forsaken leaves,

To the utter death which is our sin and at which heaven can but grieve.

But for the one drop of water that is all within Hell’s bitter flame

He left the mother by the cross for tenderness in that pain.

 

Cherry Foster

Choose love – true love that is deeper than involuntary inclination

Why I don’t think that the current catchphrase “you can’t choose who you fall in love with” is an argument for same-sex marriage or the morality of sexual acts between people of the same sex.

Disclaimers: I am not saying in what follows that to have homosexual inclinations is a choice. I am conscious of – and deeply troubled by – the inconsistency within my church institution, in sanctioning things that are against the New Testament standard of chastity for people who are heterosexual, while being strict (in theory at least) about them in people who are homosexual. Granted, I want consistency restored in the direction of restoring New Testament standards of chastity for heterosexuals at the institutional level, but I do recognise the real grievance and the real inequality in upholding these standards for one group of people and throwing them out for another.

I am not not NOT saying that sexual activity between two consenting adults, no matter how unethical I’d argue it is, is evil on the level of rape, particularly of the rape of the most vulnerable and the most entitled to protection and respect – i.e. children. And I do not, in any context, argue that something should be illegal merely because it is unethical. Moreover, I appreciate the historical need certain groups of people had to disassociate themselves vigorously from those who were trying to argue not for the legality of non-violent sexual acts between consenting adults in private, but for the removal of necessary and legitimate protections from children, and the cultural inconsistency I’m pointing out may partly result from that.

Now I shall proceed regarding what this post is actually about!

 

The current catchword for the liberal agenda on homosexuality seems to be, “choose love”. “You can’t help who you fall in love with, how you feel about sex, therefore, same-sex marriage and sexual acts between people of the same sex etc. must be good and right between people who are that way inclined”.

What I wish to argue is that this “therefore” is not actually correct. (That is, that the premise is true but that the conclusion does not follow).

It is a fundamental – and I believe quite correct – insistence of the agenda that uses the “choose love” type catchword, that people are not responsible for their romantic or sexual inclination: therefore, that this should not be subject to moral judgement, and I feel they tend to imply that it must follow that this means it must be good and right to indulge that inclination.

So far, so good. But one cannot consistently say, as I feel our society tends to: “homosexuals and heterosexuals merely develop differently; this is completely involuntary,” and “paedophiles are inherently disgusting”, as if people with that sexuality are making the moral choice to have that inclination.

That is, if we assume that the development of a sexuality is not voluntary, and should always be respected and acknowledged as part of the person, we have to assume that this is so for everyone, including those whom we currently still condemn merely for being what they are, and who, it is a reasonable guess to say, are probably made to find it more difficult to be virtuous by the social disgust for their natural inclination (given that this seems to be what it has been like for people who are homosexual in the recent past). Acceptance of their experience and support in acting rightly towards children would be a far better response from society than condemning people because they are tempted to misuse children.

I don’t need to argue the case that it is evil to actually use children sexually – that is now mutually accepted on every side of this debate – however much some people on either side have failed to live it, or have wrongly condoned those failing to live it. (Our guilt as Christians is greater because we ought to be upholding a higher standard).

However, the fact of paedophilia, and the fact that it is agreed in the case of people who are paedophiles, that they must be celibate, means that it can never follow merely from the fact of a romantic or sexual inclination that it is right to act upon it. We cannot define doing what we are inclined to do as “love”, regardless of other considerations. Of course, this is not an argument for the whole of traditional Christian chastity ethics, but it is one of the main reasons why I feel that the “choose love” argument is not merely inconclusive, but actually false. It isn’t an argument for the things it purports to be an argument for. I find it deeply frustrating to be continuously bombarded with it as though it obviously ought to change my mind!

However, while I don’t think “you can’t help who you fall in love with” offers any moral conclusion about what it is right to do sexually or romantically, it does dictate certain things about the right pastoral approach. That is, we should not be saying to our young people “trust God and he will make you straight” – that does not seem to be true – but “trust God and he will help you find chastity and true flourishing – as he does all those of us who experience these things differently from you”. And this should be what is said to a teenager who is developing paedophilia as much as it is to anyone else. In fact, I get the impression that a lot of people who are heterosexual, particularly those from certain places and certain church cultures, have also been taught to regard their involuntary sexual desires as wrong in themselves. It is important to make sure it is understood that sins of thought in this matter are what we deliberately do (like consciously indulging a fantasy of being in bed with the last attractive person we met in the street), not what we involuntarily think or feel (such as a picture of that person undressed coming randomly and disconcertingly into our heads).

 

As a philosopher and a Christian I would of course say to people who are homosexual, as to all others, “choose love”. But the set of actions which I think constitute choosing love are not those of the liberal agenda. What I would say in this context is: “choose love. Be physically celibate*. Choose the love which goes deeper than involuntary feeling, and respects the fact that the bodies of two people of the same sex are neither adapted nor designed for sexual activity with each other.”

The body in Christianity is part of the person, a good part of the person, and its biological and personal nature should be thoroughly and completely respected in the context of any sexual act. I am always frustrated, actually, by the similar argument in the context of Ellis Peters’ work, where Brother Cadfael justifies his (heterosexual) affairs with statements along the lines of “it would be an insult to repent of loving a woman like Mariam”**. It is not of loving her that you are bidden repent, but of the fact that you did not treat her with the fullness of love, to either not receive her body, or to commit your whole person utterly to her in marriage until the death of one of you***.

I am not, in saying that true love is deeper than involuntary emotion opposing “true love” and “involuntary emotion” in any black/white way. True love often encompasses involuntary emotion, or is built thereon. Despite the fact that I don’t believe marriage is about “two people in love”, I wouldn’t recommend a man and a woman marry without affection of that type, as the level of spiritual maturity it would take in this culture and in these circumstances to come to “true love” within a marriage without building its practical side partly on “in love” and on long term friendship, seems to me to be astronomical. But true love, love that really seeks the good of the other, can also sometimes mean overcoming our involuntary preferences, as when a mother or father lets their infant child attempt to climb up the climbing frame without assistance for the first time, despite the fact that they’d rather keep them completely safe and not let them acquire the probable bruises!

To those who would say to me frustratedly “you just don’t understand”, I know that this is quite true. I am heterosexual, and I am, more fundamentally, not you. The only way I can understand your experience of these things is by trying to hear what you are saying about it. And that is very necessary for moral enabling and practical support. We do need to build Church communities that support and encourage people in living the demands of the Gospel, rather than ones that lay heavy burdens on people and will not move to lift them themselves.

However, it does not seem to me that “you don’t understand the experience” is an argument for a change of principle. This is partly because the arguments I am making as to what it is right to do or not do are based on the dignity and nature of the body as part of the human person. I think that to argue that we can change the dignity and nature of the body by what we think or experience is to argue that the body is a possession of the mind, rather than equally a part of the person, and I think that to be incorrect. Mental and emotional experience matter, but they aren’t things that can logically overturn principles based on the nature of the body, because these principles are based on things which in this context necessarily take precedence over mental and emotional experience if the body is also to be truly regarded with honour. (This argument potentially works in an atheist/secular context, in that it does not rely directly on theology, though the emphasis I put on the human body as part of the person is undoubtedly shaped by the Christian tradition).

Primarily, though, within Christianity, the principle is based on the idea that God loves us, and he therefore gives difficult commands only because it is truly better for us, not because he is out to get us. There is no way it is consistent with the scriptural narrative to say “because I find this difficult, because it will lead to suffering, because it isn’t what I want, it can’t be God’s will”. Gethsemane alone would rule that out. On the other hand, there is also no way that we should be indifferent to human suffering or struggling. If one part of the body suffers, all others suffer with them. It is important that the approach within the church be pastoral, not in the sense of changing the principles, but in the sense of acknowledging the real extent and nature of people’s challenges in living the Gospel.

Ultimately, I would argue is that this whole issue of how one behaves sexually and romantically, for anyone regardless of their sexual/romantic inclination, is not about choosing love or not choosing love, but about coming to understand what it truly means to love.

 

 

* I oppose same-sex marriage because it would be illogical in the context of what I think marriage is, but I have no strong opinion either way on romantic but physically celibate relationships between two people of the same sex.

** I have not the book at present, so while I believe the attribution correct, this may not be a precise quote. The argument I am making does not rely on its source.

***See also 1 Corinthians 6:18, and the following verses.

 

People are welcome to comment. However, I suggest reading at least the disclaimers at the beginning again first (make sure you understand more or less what I’m really saying – or ask if I haven’t been clear), assume the goodwill of anyone who disagrees with you, and use arguments (“I think X because…”) rather than trying to shout others down.

Magnificat

The_Embrace_of_Elizabeth_and_the_Virgin_Mary source wikimedia commons, photo credit and author unknown, no copyright
The Visitation, St. George Church, Kurbinovo, North Macedonia. Source, Wikimedia Commons, author and photo credit unknown.

 

My soul gives glory to the Lord; my spirit delights in God who saves me,

For he has chosen to honour me despite my insignificance.

Look, look!  For now, all people shall for ever call me blessed!

He, the all powerful, has lent me glory, and HOLY is his Name.

His mercy is with them that adore him, throughout all ages of history.

 

He is showing strength and power,

He brings the desire of those who boast of themselves to nothing at all.

He has overturned presidents and prime ministers,

Exulting the underprivileged to power and wealth.

He is filling those in need with all they could want,

While those stuffed full of luxury are turned away with nothing.

 

He remembering his kindness has come to help his servant Israel,

As he promised to our ancestors from time immemorial,

Promised to Abraham’s family for ever and ever.

Cherry Foster

 

P.S. An academic note: I have called this “Magnificat”, and in a sense it is, but I know almost no Greek, so ultimately it is my own linguistic impression of the English versions (all however many ><) that I know, and my interpretation of the poetry, not an actual translation.  There is no avoiding, for instance, choosing between “he has exulted me because I was humble,” “he has exulted me because of my low social status,” and “he has exulted me despite my low social status”, and I’ve had to do that without any reference to the original language, according to what I think is most coherent with the poem as a whole and with my opinion on the theology of poverty.  It is a devotional poem rather than a scriptural translation.

Also, I partly wrote this as an exercise in exploring the problems with trying to put liturgy in truly modern language, being annoyed by the notion it was worth swapping the beautiful prayer book Magnificat for a version which referred to the “lowly” apparently on the grounds that the second version was more “modern” (I’m not sure I’ve ever referred to the “lowly” in any serious way – it is just as dated, if not more so, than “humble and meek”).  I’m also intrigued by the problems the limitations of word choice that would be caused by being truly idiomatic create when writing to be read aloud (stylistically, it should really be “on them who” not “on them that“, but the “e-o-or-i” sequence there sounds excruciating; similarly, “unimportance” would have been more idiomatic than “insignificance”, but it has a clumsy rhythm, and poor, clumsy, bad-sounding language doesn’t communicate the beauty and majesty of God).  Another problem that intrigues me is that society has changed in ways that mean there simply isn’t a modern equivalent to some things – it isn’t possible to communicate the relationship between master and servant by talking of an employee – and I think this is even more problematic when it comes to theological concepts like “blessed”, “holy”, and “mercy”.   Besides, trying to make it sound like an excited teenager talking for the first time about something utterly momentous to her in the confused context of greeting a relative whom she hasn’t seen for some time and who has also had her life turned upside down is quite complicated in terms of choice of technique.

Anyway, it was very interesting, and I have a bit more sympathy now with the people who have to write liturgy and make compromises between all the different considerations.

Transfiguration

Of old upon the mountain paths

The unnamed God revealed

In unconsuming flame his call,

Yet with his face concealed.

 

Of old upon the mountain side

The wind and fire did rage,

But God unseen in silence there,

Spake to his lonely sage.

 

But now upon the mountain top,

In glory old and new,

The Son the Father showeth forth,

To God’s full image true.

 

Cherry Foster

 

Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov source wikimedia commons no copyright
Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

A Nice Story from the Old Testament

Elisha and the Syrians

Prophet Elisha, Russian Icon from 18c Source wikimedia commons no copyright
Russian Icon of the Prophet Elisha, 18th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For some reason this obscure and comforting story keeps coming into my head, so I thought I would share it.  It is one of my favourites.  While I am not advocating an unwillingness to engage with the “uncomfortable” parts of the Old Testament, it is worth remembering sometimes that it is not all like that.

Then the king of Syria warred against Israel, and took counsel with his servants, saying, In such and such a place shall be my camp.

And the man of God sent unto the king of Israel, saying, Beware that thou pass not such a place; for thither the Syrians are come down.  And the king of Israel sent to the place which the man of God told him and warned him of, and saved himself there, not once nor twice.

Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was sore troubled for this thing; and he called his servants, and said unto them, Will ye not shew me which of us is for the king of Israel.  And one of his servants said, None, my lord, O king: but Elisha, the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber. And he said, Go and spy where he is, that I may send and fetch him.

And it was told him, saying, Behold, he is in Dothan. Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do? And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed unto the LORD, and said, Smite this people, I pray thee, with blindness. And he smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. And Elisha said unto them, This is not the way, neither is this the city: follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom ye seek. But he led them to Samaria. And it came to pass, when they were come into Samaria, that Elisha said, LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see. And the LORD opened their eyes, and they saw; and, behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.

And the king of Israel said unto Elisha, when he saw them, My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them? And he answered, Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master. And he prepared great provision for them: and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master.

So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel.

2 Kings, chapter 6, verses 8-23.  King James Version.  With thanks to all who have put Bible texts online – it is an amazing resource.

Cherry Foster

 

P.S. A recording of the post.  Excuse its amateur nature!  Please tell me if you find it useful/like it. 

 

Is all-age worship possible?

“Children prefer all-age worship,” someone says. The sense of loss and weariness and “this church just doesn’t have a place for people like me”, remains with me for days. True, to be painfully honest, everything about the church is “ouching” me at the moment. But the focus on children to the exclusion of anyone else is one of the worst and most ongoing difficulties I have. Of the things that parish priests could do to assist religious vocations, I would say that a reasonable value and respect for silence and focus, not relegated entirely to private prayer or low Masses, and respect for those who suffer from noise in worship, is among the most important things. Otherwise the spirituality of a contemplative life is being crushed out before it can even begin*.

I also believe it is very important to welcome children  – and their parents/carers, whose needs aren’t met if the children’s needs aren’t, but who also have a whole complex set of needs of their own. This tends to result in my wanting to contrive and support as much creative and fruitful separation of children’s activities and worship as possible. On the other hand, driven crazy by the refusal of others to hear the reality of my needs and problems, I am very eager not to do the same to others. If being part of services which involve the whole church community is important to children, then it should matter to the rest of us as well.

My reasons for hating what I’m used to thinking of as all-age worship are of several different types. The main one is quite simply: noise. And lack of stillness. I am a contemplative, an introvert, a person with two different health conditions which increase my sensitivity to background noise, and someone who has never lived with young children since I was a young child myself. I do my best, but I don’t respond very well to short services of spoken words alone (thankful though I am that these are often quiet actually during the service). The occasional high sung Eucharist which is accidentally quiet I seize on like someone starving – but without being able to expect it to be quiet I find it difficult to respond as fully as I might – in the same way as I have a lot of trouble going to sleep if I’m expecting to be woken up. While I doubt many people are unfortunate enough to have all five of my difficulties with noise combined, there are plenty of introverts, plenty of people without children, plenty of people with disabilities which make noise more difficult out there. And possibly plenty of contemplatives – but who knows?

There is also the fact that most of the things I respond to naturally are thoroughly adult. Long services, lots of silence, lots of symbolism, music that’s technically good, lots of things that appeal to the intellect, lots of sensory input of different kinds, no distractions – and minimal surprises or unexpected or out of place happenings**. It seems to be inherent to my personality to need a combination of complexity (to hold my attention) and order (to keep things calm). And this is not likely to suit children under a certain age.

I also associate all-age with a particular type of stifling of spiritual growth. There was a cultural tendency in the church I grew up in to try to make stuff all-age by reducing it. Everything had to be aimed at a child of 8, and anything that wasn’t suitable for young children was supposed to be scrapped, trapping everyone at a certain stage of growth and forbidding them to go further or deeper in their journey. Anglo-Catholics don’t tend to do that, as far as I can see. What we do tend to have is an attitude that being in the building where Mass is being said is “worship” regardless of what we are actually doing or thinking during that time, which I would respectfully suggest is not actually consistent with our principles!

It seems to me that all age worship usually either means a group of adults doing things along with the children which seem to be done entirely for the children’s sake, rather than in order to worship, or it means the young children playing, screaming, fighting, and banging their toys around in some isolated corner, while those adults who are fortunate enough to be able to worship despite this get on with doing so, and those of us who are not sit there in protracted agony. In no way is either all-age worship. Being in the same room should not be considered as enough.

If the problem is that children, in being separated off to do something else, feel as if they were not part of the church community, perhaps there are ways in which this can be ameliorated other than all-age worship. Our church has a custom I love, of bringing the Sunday-school children in with the procession of clergy, and having the celebrant bless them before they leave to do something different during the liturgy of the word. As an adult helper, I felt that our part in what the church was doing was being affirmed and blessed and included, and I hope the children more or less felt the same. Moreover, I have been told by people who have tried it that it is possible to get very young children joining in meaningfully with adult worship with minimal alteration – much younger than is spontaneously possible – if the effort is put into teaching and assisting and the expectation is that this is something they should mostly be joining in with too – when the time they are being asked to be quiet and engage is age appropriate. So it may be that it is possible to look for other ways of making the children feel included while sticking primarily to a “separate group” policy, or by enabling them to engage much younger with “adult church”, thus making that closer to all-age without rendering it useless to a proportion of the adults. Whether this is so or not can, of course, only be answered by them.

I should also say that I am aware of the possibility that this is not so much about all-age worship as the fact that a vocation of the sort I have is like a fish out of water in a parish. While there is certainly an element of that in my reactions and feelings, the degree to which it is unacceptable to say that you have difficulties worshipping without silence and focus leaves me unsure of how much of my experience is unusual.  I don’t know how much my impression of isolation is caused by the fact that it is just not ok at the moment to admit to having difficulties caused by anything children are doing or by anything done for the children.

Anyway, to my original question “Is all age worship possible?” I think the answer is that it is something very well worth trying to do, both for the sake of those who want it and on the grounds that ultimately we are a single community.  But it needs to be attempted with the real consciousness that if we mean “all-age”, we have to mean that we are trying to make it work equally well for everyone. If it is working for the toddler, but not for the single young adults, the parents, the middle aged, or the elderly and frail, it is not working, just as much as it is not working if it is not working for the toddler. I think also it is necessary to accept its limitations and to do other things as well, rather than attempting to make all our worship fit that pattern and no other. It is an adventure. It is worthwhile.

Cherry Foster

 

*The current precedence of noise over silence is a much wider issue than children alone, but children do seem to me to be one of the major genuine issues, i.e. where there is a real pastoral need on the side of noise as well.

**I do usually manage to avoid fainting! While I’m well aware of a different side of this – the need to accommodate disability, including my own, without allowing it to disrupt worship, that issue is not one I want to talk about in public about at the moment.